Dec 31, 2014

Remembering the Magic of Bark Psychosis’ Hex

It’s a landmark album, but more importantly, it’s a beautiful album, and time has done nothing to change that.

Bark Psychosis' Hex

Earlier this year, I wrote a reflection about Low’s I Could Live in Hope, which turned twenty years old this year. However, I’d somehow completely overlooked the fact that another album that was seminal — both to certain music scenes as well as to my own growth as a music lover (and even musician) — was released twenty years ago: Bark Psychosis’ Hex.

If there’s any question about its legacy, consider this little bit of trivia: critic Simon Reynolds coined the term “post-rock” in order to describe it. Indeed, Hex truly does feel like something beyond traditional rock n’ roll: sure, it features guitars and drums, but it uses them in decidedly un-rock ways, eschewing traditional verse/chorus structures for long, ambient passages that weave in elements of jazz, electronica, and modern classical (e.g., Steve Reich).

As such, it can be a transformative listen. I still remember the first time I heard Bark Psychosis’ material: an internet acquaintance sent me a mixtape with the album’s first three songs, and as they played, I say there completely transfixed. It was so elegantly composed and aesthetically beautiful, and while parts felt familiar, it also truly sounded unlike anything I’d heard before. I was — and still am — especially enamored with “Absent Friend,” which begins with reverbed guitar, jazz-ish drumming, melodica, and Graham Suttons’ breathy vocals, transforms into a gorgeous spiral of intricate guitar and piano melodies, and then slowly winds down amongst vibraphone and shimmering electronics.

But according to this fascinating and in-depth history of the band, the recording sessions of Hex were anything but elegant or beautiful. In fact, I was surprised to find out that the band’s history was quite rough-n-tumble, full of idealism, drama and turmoil.

Sutton’s refusal to compromise meant that the band’s every penny went into the record. By the summer of 1993, unable to survive financially any longer on just income support, Daniel Gish was forced to leave. Even this didn’t cause Sutton pause for thought: he selected the lavish RAK Studios in which to mix the album.

“I knew that we needed a good, solid place after all the work that had been done,” he clarifies. “After all the grief of working in these little makeshift spaces for many months, it was just wonderful. The only trouble was that going there meant we had absolutely no budget for food, or anything else. So Mark parked his camper van in the car park and we stayed in that. Food would come by the studio ringing through to tell us we could go and sneak up and eat the Fine Young Cannibals’, or whoever’s, leftovers. It was just too funny.”

Others clearly didn’t find it as funny. “At the end of mixing the record,” Sutton confesses, “John told me, ‘This is your record.’ He did not mean it as a compliment, more that I’d somehow betrayed those initial ideals.” Once Hex was completed, furthermore, Ling quit. “Obviously I felt absolutely heartbroken and let down when John decided to leave just a week before the release tour,” Sutton admits. “I think he’d just had enough of the whole machinations of music making, the whole bullshit merry go round. But more likely he’d had enough of me!”

But as is so often the strange and ironic case, great turmoil (as lamentable as it is) makes for great, even beautiful art, and out of the clashing personalities, relationship stress, label conflicts, poverty, and so on, emerged an album that remains as fresh, invigorating, and innovative as ever.

Though the band had basically become defunct by the time Hex was released, Sutton resuscitated Bark Psychosis and released Codename: Dustsucker in 2004, an excellent album in its own right. Since then, he’s busied himself with producer gigs for the likes of Jarvis Cocker and British Sea Power, though he’s discussed the possibility of releasing more Bark Psychosis music.

Even if Bark Psychosis is well and truly gone, Hex forever cemented their position at the nexus of seemingly disparate musical strands and genres. It’s a landmark album, but more importantly, it’s a beautiful album, and time has done nothing to change that.

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